City Theatre renames studio to honor the late Pittsburgh Black arts leader Dr. Vernell Lillie

City Theatre’s Lester Hamburg Studio Theatre has been renamed the Lillie Theatre.

City Theatre has paid tribute to the legacy of Kuntu Repertory Theatre founder and artistic director Dr. Vernell Audrey Watson Lillie by renaming its studio theater in her honor.

The former Lester Hamburg Studio, the 102-seat black box that is part of City’s South Side campus, is now the Lillie Theatre, a tribute to the award-winning Pittsburgh educator, artist, advocate and Black theater leader, who died on May 11, 2020. 

The announcement noted that Dr. Lillie “was a co-founder of the Black Theatre Network and served as a mentor, director and inspiration to countless artists through Kuntu and as a long-time professor at the University of Pittsburgh.”

City Theatre founder Marjorie Walker consulted with Dr. Lillie on the company’s formation in the mid 1970s, and Dr. Lillie went on to assist on more than a dozen City productions. 

A steering committee was formed after her death to explore ways to formally honor and celebrate her, City’s press release said, and the theater was renamed with the unanimous support from its board of directors,

“With the naming of the Dr. Vernell Audrey Watson Lillie Theatre at City Theatre, we honor her legacy of excellence and accomplishment, and recognize the critical and transformative impact she had on African American artists and lovers of theater nationwide,” said City Theatre co-artistic director Marc Masterson, who knew and worked with Dr. Lillie for more than 20 years. “Dr. Lillie was an inspiration to me and so many others and she made the world and community a better place through her art and her influence. We are so honored to memorialize her legacy for generations to come.” 

Charisse R. Lillie, speaking on behalf of her sister, Dr. Marsha (Hisani) Lillie-Blanton, and their families, said in a statement, “Our mother was the ultimate mentor, mother-figure, consultant, confidante, and even a source of financial support for her students, and sometimes their families. She loved her students, the Black Theatre Network, and Kuntu Repertory Theatre – which we used to joke was her third child and for which she dedicated her heart and soul. She viewed Black theater as a tool for educating, elevating and uplifting the African-American community which would, in turn, educate, elevate and uplift the nation and the world. We are very grateful to City Theatre for this wonderful gift they are giving our family.” 

Dr. Vernell Lillie

“Dr. Lillie was a pioneer. She created a path, she created opportunities – specifically for Black artists and Black people who didn’t realize that they were artists until they tapped into that strength inside of them,” said City  co-artistic director Monteze Freeland, who first worked with Dr. Lillie in a production of August Wilson’s Radio Golf in 2010. “Dr. Lillie was an encourager; she taught me – and told me – that I needed to love myself and she led by example: No one else was going to knock her down.” 

A ceremony that was to unveil the new Lillie Theatre name and signage on May 22 was postponed due to rising Covid-19 concerns, and will be rescheduled for this fall. Prepared remarks for the postponed event from Charisse Lillie and Dr. Lillie’s long-time colleague and collaborator, Eileen J. Morris, are available at CityTheatreCompany.org/LillieTheatre. The company welcomes additional remembrances of Dr. Lillie which will be shared online and on screens in the City Theatre lobby.



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1 reply

  1. This is an awesome and befitting tribute to Dr. Lillie, a true trailblazer in the arts!

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